I'd been courting you for months by then, a sinuous process that demanded every resource my art could supply. As I opened up my soul to you in the only way I knew how, I studied your response, every encouraging twitch of your lip, hoping, through refinement of my technique, to impress on you what I couldn't say outright—that no feeling I'd ever known could compare with what I felt for you.
“Jolene,” I wanted to say, “I love you. This is love. We know it when it comes along, however crudely we express it.”
It wasn't love at all, you say to me now. You didn't love me. You didn't know me. Can you even remember one thing I said to you?
No, Jolene, I cannot. In the dizzying, thrilling body of everything that passed between us, I can only now remember things unsaid—except for one thing which was said and which should never have been said. And for that I'll always be sorry.
Snack crackers. That was our undoing. All my lamented shortcomings crystallized in those baked cheddar bites. My paucity of romantic imagination, grotesquely imaged. My profoundest regret imprinted like a grease stain on my soul.
And yet, somewhere within me, I was intimately acquainted with love and its subtleties. In my dreams, you and I led a placid, wondrous existence; you would wear the beautiful, floral-printed dress I came to associate with summer's approach; we would sit out on a grassy field beneath the sun, holding hands or taking turns stroking each others' hair. Our nighttime doubles knew no uneasiness, no desperation; they did not grasp erratically for love's expression. But by day, things were different. By day, I offered stories about pogo sticks and space aliens as love's proof, or walked into the classroom quacking like a duck. I staged fights with chairs for your amusement. I offered up every pratfall, every pun, every performance at my disposal. Wooing you with all the antics I dared and living for your every giggle, I came to inhabit a permanent state of manic exuberance. Even Miss Gerhard could tell. She told me, in so many words, when she pulled me aside one day:
“Alex, your flirty pursuit of Jolene has grown to such disruptive excess as threatens to derail the educational mission of the fourth-grade team. In fact, I think it fair to say that I've never witnessed such disruptive and antic flirtation in the fourth grade before.” (The educational mission of the fourth-grade team: a casualty of my love for you, Jolene.) “I'm afraid that we will not cover the Revolutionary War before Christmas if I do not remove you from Jolene's table. This is the stated policy of the fourth-grade team. You will sit in isolation for a while, until the academic focus of this classroom has had a chance to recover.”
A banished Romeo, I watched you from a distance at which I could barely see the whites of your eyes. I watched as every day at ten o'clock you opened up your bag of snack crackers and ate away at our future.
Which is not to say I lay blame on you, Jolene, or your crackers. Nor can I blame Drew, with his short bristly hair and stocky build and look of perpetual cluelessness. He was my friend in those days because he was a good audience, meaning he would guffaw after almost everything I said.
“Drew, Andrew, sir, amigo,” I might have said, “Ferrel here says the reason he didn't want me on his soccer team is that I can't kick for beans. But I tell you he's wrong—I could kick five beans, even.” And through little verbal coups such as these I could cue the desired chortle. Such was my relationship with Drew, my ever-enthusiastic trial audience.
Things might have turned out so that he would have had a share in my downfall, helped form the clumsy words with which I lost you. He was a friend of mine, after all, and I might have made him my co-conspirator too:
“Let me draw out for you, Drew, this wonderful scheme I've concocted, a stunt which is sure to amuse the whole class and Jolene most especially, sure to show her my love in the close observation I've given even the minutest of her habits and preferences, these snack crackers of hers.” You must understand, Jolene, I thought both nothing and everything of my scheme: nothing because it was intended like any other, and everything because it was intended for your delight. Its critical flaw was not yet apparent to me. As it was, I never got a chance to implicate Drew in this misguided opus, the calamitous shot heard round the world, because Drew had an opus of his own to share.
He'd shown me his writing before, stories in the same farcical vein I was working in, and I admit I thought they were rudimentary, shoddy, frankly unfunny—a pale imitation of the sort I was crafting for you, and infuriatingly peopled with talking animals. At some point, he must have understood his own mediocrity, because he stopped bringing them to me after a while. I'm sure I was never anything less than encouraging of his efforts, though at times Drew could strain my patience. His neediness was the worst; there wasn't a single snowy day that winter he didn't call me and ask me to accompany him sledding. Imagine my surprise, however, when thick, bristle-haired Drew read a composition at the front of the room and received ringing laughter from the entire class. I was more than surprised, I'll allow—I was shocked. I don't know how much I registered the piece itself. From my isolation off to the side, I saw every nine-year-old body contorted in helpless mirth, their hands clapping feverishly when he'd finished. Their fervor seemed almost bloodthirsty. I saw it all and I recognized it: it was the total exposure of admiration I longed to receive from you, and I very nearly had to despise him for achieving it.
Can you fault me, Jolene? Months spent working toward some great ecstasy always just out of sight, wearing the gold hat and bouncing higher till one day my love would be plain as sunshine—to have had all my efforts utterly eclipsed in one stroke, and by Drew—
Needless to say Drew hadn't really been capable of such an upset. Miss Gerhard had a few words for him after his exhibition, and from my nearby desk I caught the gist of her admonition:
“Drew, later this year, after we cover the American Revolution, you will learn about the Barbary Pirates. They were so named because they came from Barbary and plundered goods from ships. You have committed a deed in every way equal to the deeds of those vicious pirates. You have plundered your story directly from a television program which aired last night, one which happens to be the fourth-grade team's particular favorite. I must inform you that any further acts of piracy, either intellectual or nautical, will result in disciplinary action.”
As he walked past my desk, I was ready to elicit another guffaw from my perennial congratulator—“Aaarr, avast, Drew, that be a hoot of a story ye be readin'”—but no guffaw came. He took his seat silently without looking at me. We spent less time together after that, which at first came as some relief, though I'm sure he regretted it in the end. Few people in that class apart thought much of Drew at all, but I can know that I, at least, tried to be his friend. If we fell apart, it's not my fault. The responsibility can't be mine if he felt ashamed for what he'd done, if he rejected my friendship out of bitterness or jealousy.
You are quick to seize upon this. You weren't ever a friend to him, you say, any more than you were to me.
But I was a friend to you, Jolene. I know I was. Drew was Drew, and I did my best for him. But you were different. There was more between us.
All there was between us was you and your egomania. You just kept spewing that act of yours, and I was polite, nothing more. I never found you amusing or interesting.
But I watched you. I know you did.
You don't know that. You couldn't have known my feelings any more than you did on the day you hurt me. I was never a real person to you. Only something in your head, just like now, a fiction for you to tinker with. “Jolene.” You see you treat me the same way you treat anyone else. “Drew.” “Miss Gerhard.” But I have a voice again, and I can tell you that you were blind. You never meant anything to me.
No, Jolene. I won't let even my own guilty conscience rewrite history as uncharitably as that. It's true, I was consumed in my own performance; I was erratic, and I was desperate; but it was the fever of love, and I know it moved you. There are some things about you, Jolene, that I am sure of, that I have an absolute knowledge of, and you can't take them away from me now. I know the smiles that crossed your face. I know the way your mouth hung agape in that incredulous laughter of yours, as if everything that brought you mirth were also somehow indecent. I know what hoped-for result prompted my every word and deed, sustained me when I did not achieve it. I know all of this, because I know what I lost.
* * *
“DOLPHINS AND FRIENDS!” I sang to an improvised melody as I marched toward you. “BAKED CHEDDAR SNACK CRACKERS!” You looked up from your snack where you sat. I punctuated the musical performance with a number of aquatic noises such as I imagined dolphins or their friends might make. It was a feeble effort, I know, and in the unclear design of an artistic failure so much was misunderstood.
Miss Gerhard led me out into the hallway within an hour. I couldn't fathom what she might want. She fixed me with a stare and began:
“Alex, I understand you've been making fun of Jolene's snack crackers.”
I was shocked by the very suggestion. Of course I hadn't been, Jolene, I hadn't meant anything by it. Just when I might have said something in my defense to Miss Gerhard, I caught sight of you behind her. You were crying. I couldn't say anything.
“Clearly, Jolene is deeply hurt by your insinuations that her Dolphins & Friends snack crackers are somehow inadequate or inferior to the leading brand. I don't suppose you considered even for one second the socioeconomic implications of your mockery. In light of your cruel gibe and your still unrelenting classroom antics, I am compelled to telephone your parents tonight, and you will sit out one week's recess. This is the stated policy of the fourth grade team.”
By then I was crying too, and after my parents scolded me I cried some more, but I knew this was good. I was not sorry, either, when I missed out on kickball and soccer at recess. Having known the look of pain on your face, I came to despise my own happiness. I only regret that I had but one week's recess to offer you, Jolene, as penitence for my sin.